Free software is worth every penny.

February 19, 2015  •  Leave a Comment

Is software ever really free?  I have worked for over one half of my life creating, supporting, maintaining and fixing software of one sort or another.  I consider the photography that I do to be a form of software, and even if I do not make a living from it, it is expensive to create, and I do expect to be paid for letting others use it.  That (and my respect for professionals who make photographs for a living) is why I rarely contribute photographs gratis for publication.  What will happen to the quality of images in our lives if free photographs make it difficult or impossible for professional photographers, or artists working in the medium of photography, to earn a decent living?  For one answer, we might take a look at so-called free software.

"Free" software comes in a number of forms.  Truly free software, that is software that is developed without remuneration and for which no payment--whether directly, through donations or to obtain the "full function" version--is expected, is exceedingly rare.  Some people may be tempted to cite the Linux operating system as an example.  Surely, the Linux kernel is available for free.  But was it developed for free?  Linus Torvalds, the original author, was not, as far as I know, compensated for its development.  But he based it on Minix and Unix.  Minix was developed by Andrew S. Tanenbaum for use by his computer science students.  He was undoubtedly compensated for his teaching, and he published Minix in a textbook from which he presumably received royalties.  Unix itself was originally developed by paid employees of AT&T Bell Labs.  The operating system now known as Linux has been enormously enhanced from the original kernel, largely be people working for small to large corporations (e.g. IBM, which modified it to run on the mainframe).

This brings me to the sore point that motivated this post.  Since retiring from IBM (and even for several months before my retirement), I have been using IBM Lotus Symphony for editing documents, spreadsheets and presentations.  Symphony is based on the Open Document Framework (ODF), an ISO international standard format.  I was drawn to it not only because it was free (free to the end user, that is, but developed by paid employees), but more especially because I dislike Microsoft Office and its predecessors.  One of the reasons I dislike most Microsoft products (even those--like Windows--I am virtually forced to use) is constant incompatible upgrades.  I can barely count the number of times I have received a document that I am unable to edit because the original author had a newer version of Office than mine.  Symphony used ODF natively, but it was able to read and write Office documents (.doc, .xls, etc.).  It did a pretty fair job of handling them.

Alas, IBM does not support Symphony on Windows 8.1, and I understand it has ceased development of Symphony and donated the source code to Apache Open Office.  I tried using Symphony on 8.1, but it just does not work properly.  So, I got myself a free copy of Open Office and have been using that.  Unfortunately, I have found it to be extremely unstable.  It crashes whenever I use it for more than a few minutes.  I am the secretary of a not-for-profit corporation and was taking minutes at a recent meeting where I had a spreadsheet and some other documents open.  I had to resort to taking notes manually (I'm old enough to still bring pen and paper to meetings) and re-booting my laptop a number of times.  Even simple correspondence seems to tire out the Open Office software after a few letters.

So, I am reluctantly forced to resort to Microsoft Office, with its incompatibilities and impact on my wallet, to perform my uncompensated responsibilities.  But although there may be incompatible upgrades from time to time, it is stable.  It works.  Meanwhile, I'm delighted to pay Adobe $9.99 plus tax per month to use Lightroom, Photoshop, Bridge and so forth. (If only I could afford Framemaker!)  I pay this partly from funds I accumulated when I was paid to write and test quality software.  Adobe products are stable and highly functional, and tutorials on their use are incredibly easy to fine.

Perhaps some day, if I live so long, I will be able to migrate to Linux, but only if I can run Photoshop natively (as well as Quicken and other favorites).  Meanwhile I'm getting about what I pay for when it comes to free software.




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